Jungian Psychology Series: The Self

The last article in this series looked the anima and animus. The anima is the feminine side of a man’s personality, symbolized in his dreams by female figures. The animus is the masculine side of a woman’s personality, symbolized in her dreams by male figures. Because the anima and animus arise from a deeper level of the psyche than that of the ego, persona, and shadow, they often serve as guides to the spiritual core of the personality. For example, a woman is more likely to be led by a male dream figure on a heroic journey into the unknown, whereas a man is more likely to embark on such a journey with a female companion as his inspiration and guide. This archetypal (instinctual) dynamic is frequently reflected in fairy tales, movies, and mythology. This article examines the driving force and goal behind life’s heroic journey–the Self.

The Self is the regulating center of the total personality, conscious and unconscious. It is the archetype of wholeness and the force of creativity, integration, healing, and love within the psyche. Through symbolic imagery the Self is able to unite opposing elements of the personality creating a perspective that is more than the sum of its parts. It is, thus, the source of our dreams and of the enduring themes and patterns reflected in human history and culture. It is sometimes referred to as the Imago Dei, the “image of God” in the psyche.

Because the Self is the center and foundation of the total personality, it is often experienced as a transpersonal force transcending the limited viewpoint of the ego (conscious mind). From the perspective of Jungian psychology, the relationship of the ego to the Self is the primary factor influencing a person’s spiritual and psychological well-being. When our ego works in the service of the Self, our personality unfolds and develops in a more natural fashion. We feel connected to life and humanity, and the energy, creativity and innate wisdom of the psyche flows through us. On the other hand, when the ego sets itself up as the center of the psyche (egocentricity), we trip over our own short-sightedness. We may begin to feel empty, disconnected from life, and uncreative. In dreams the Self is often symbolized by images which evoke a sense of wholeness and the union of opposites–e.g., of light and dark, conscious and unconscious, masculine and feminine.  Examples include the images of Christ and Buddha, or various mandala figures such as a cross, square, circle, or sphere. Other symbols of the Self are illustrated in the following dreams.

A woman dreams: “Large, beautiful snowflakes containing intricate designs come floating down from the sky.” Dreams need not be long to say a lot, or to have a profound affect upon the dreamer. This short dream combines themes of beauty, individuality, and a union of heaven (the sky) and earth. It provided the dreamer a sense of peace amid a period of upheaval in her outer life. The dream illustrates the role of the Self in bringing balance and a healing perspective to the conscious personality.

A dreamer dreams: “I see a round table with a beautiful lace tablecloth set with intricate silver place settings–round bowls and plates. It is either set for 4 or 8.” In this dream we encounter several motifs of the Self: the round table, plates and bowls, and the intricate tablecloth are mandala-like objects. In addition, silver, a symbol of the feminine, can also symbolize the Self. (Rare and enduring objects–diamonds, gems, gold, platinum, etc.–represent that which is precious and eternal within the psyche.) Finally, the number 4 is a symbol of wholeness, as can be any multiple of four.*  This dream is inviting the dreamer to come to the Self for nourishment. It underscores the psychological truth that all genuinely creative energy flows from the Self.

A woman dreams: “I am swimming in a pool that has clear blue water. As I swim, I notice a hole in the bottom. I swim into it. It goes into a tunnel that seems to be quite long. I then enter a cave. The water is warm. I hear running water, I see in the dim light a waterfall. As I get closer, I see a light from behind the waterfall. I hear a voice singing a chant in a language I don’t know. The chant is peaceful, and I feel quite relaxed in the warm water. I am unable to locate the voice. It seems to stay away from me.”

The path to wholeness and “completion” of the personality, what Carl Jung called individuation, involves the deepening awareness and integration of the unconscious personality. It also involves many “deaths” and “births,” the latter perhaps depicted by the dreamer’s passage through the tunnel. The Self is symbolized in this dream by the light, the calming water, and the mesmerizing chant. Like the Self, they draw the dreamer to the deeper reaches of her own psyche, and thus, towards her larger being.

A man dreams: “I am on a trip in the woods. I set up a campsite along a river on high ground. I put up my tent, which is round. I build a fire. A large owl sits in a tree nearby. It watches me intently as I prepare some food. As I eat, the owl watches. I hear a voice. I see no one in the area. The voice states, ‘I would like some of your food.’ I realize the voice is coming from the owl. I invite the owl to join me, and it does so.”

The owl is often associated with wisdom. In some Native American cultures it is also considered an omen of death. Both associations may derive from the owl’s ability to see and hunt at night. Symbolically, an owl sees into the unknown, the unconscious, the “spirit world.” This unique gift makes it an excellent symbol of the Self, for the Self knows both the visible and hidden aspects of our being. In the dream the owl asks the dreamer for some food. The message for the dreamer, as well as for ourselves, is that the gifts of the Self require effort and sacrifice  in order to be realized. The more attention we give to the Self, the richer the dialogue we establish, the more we tend to receive in return.  Have you fed your owl today?

*The number 4 is also a symbol of the feminine, and the number 3 of the masculine. Mathematical combinations of three and four, such as the numbers 7 and 12, can also serve as symbols of wholeness for they represent the union of 3 and 4. The number 40 is somewhat unique for it is frequently used as a symbol of personal and spiritual trial. 

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